Credit Cards Family Travel Miles and Points Thoughts

Best Travel Credit Cards for Beginners

Anyone who writes in this space inevitably gets asked, “So, what credit card should I sign up for?” Experienced vets know that’s a very complicated question, dependent on your travel goals, budget, liquidation bandwidth (if applicable), family size, etc. etc. But that won’t stop people from asking the question, so I thought I’d put together a list of my best travel credit cards for beginners. Easier than typing the same e-mail over and over.

Note: I do not have credit card links, therefore every link to a credit card in this post earns me $0. They are literally the links I found from Google.

Before we start, one quick note. Freequent Flyer made an astute comment to me the other day (paraphrased): “Sometimes I recommend certain credit cards to people because if they can’t even handle one or two new credit cards, they can’t handle playing this game in full.” (He’s also written on similar themes here and here).

This is the stark reality. Playing the travel hacking game often requires juggling a lot of different things at once; it challenges even the most experienced. You need to keep track of your annual fees, avoid falling for the sunk costs fallacy, manage tens of different accounts – the mental space required can be exhausting.  I’m at a point in my life where I’m simplifying my game, not expanding it. 

So these credit card recommendations come with those things in mind. They provide you options to save money on your travel, but will also help you determine how equipped you are to handle the game. Baby steps, as it were. There ain’t no shame in not getting deep in the game – better to save a little money on travel than waste a lot of money due to disorganization. And yes, please do remember to pay your statement off in full every month – otherwise your rewards will cost you way more than you think.

I’ve organized these cards from least to most complicated – the further down the list you go, the more mental energy you will need to glean maximum value. Remember, the best card is the best card for your situation. Hopefully my descriptions will help you determine that.

The best travel credit cards for beginners are highly dependent on your individual situation. My suggestions to help you find the best card for YOU.

Barclays Arrival Plus 

My mother in law texted me the other day alerting me to a 50,000 point sign up bonus for the Barclays Arrival Plus card. This card used to be hot hot hot, but nobody really talks about it much anymore as it presents less value than in the past. Still, the Arrival+ represents a great entryway into the game for beginners. You need to spend $3000 within the first three months to earn those 50,000 points – can you organize your spending in a way to accomplish that without purchasing more than you normally would?

The Arrival+ is a classic “cash equivalent” card. The points that you earned can be redeemed against your travel purchases for statement credits. Any travel purchase you make over $100 can be “zapped” through your online credit card account website with Barclays. Each point represents 1 cent of value, so 50,000 bonus points can subsidize $500 of your travel.

You also earn 2 points per dollar you spend along with a 5% rebate of points spent. So the Arrival+ functions effectively like a 2% cashback card, albeit one whose “cash” you need to spend on travel. But you can use that to travel anywhere you want to go, just plan your vacations as you normally would and make sure you use the Arrival+ to pay for it.

Some downsides include the need to make a > $100 purchase before redemptions. Also, unless you are a huge spender, the $89 annual fee (waived first year) isn’t really worth it, so this card will give you practice in canceling cards or asking for retention bonuses. 

Why card is good for beginners
  • plan travel as you normally would, use Arrival+ to pay for it and earn a statement credit
Skills practiced
  • organizing spending to earn a sign up bonus
  • redeeming cash equivalents for flights
  • canceling cards/getting retention bonuses
Downsides for beginners
  • must redeem for at least $100 in travel purchases, can be tough for some
  • may not be worth keeping for more than one year causing more work for a beginner

The best travel credit cards for beginners are highly dependent on your individual situation. My suggestions to help you find the best card for YOU.

Discover it Miles

It’s a bit weird to me to put a no annual fee card down as “more complicated” than an annual fee card like the Arrival+ but bear with me. Discover it Miles presents a fairly simple reward scheme. You earn 1.5 points per dollar spent, those points can be redeemed for cash or a travel credit. The travel credit works very similarly to the Arrival+ credit. 

One thing that makes this card more “advanced” is the introduction of the option of cash or travel credit. Ostensibly, these credits can be used the same way. The question becomes how do you organize your finances mentally? Are you setting aside your rewards for travel or are you redeeming for cash back if your finances warrant it.

Note – I think if you need the cash, you probably should be redeeming for cash back not travel. Maybe you shouldn’t be traveling in the first place. Or maybe you should! I don’t know your situation. The point is, once the option of redeeming for straight cash back is introduced, you get to start making decisions based on your priorities and goals. That represents higher order thinking in travel hacking.

In fact, I ignored a great 2% cash back card, the Fidelity Visa, when I introduced the Barclays Arrival+. But you could just earn money on a cash back card and set it aside for your travel expenses, if you can organize yourself that way.

One final note on Discover it Miles – your rewards are doubled after your first calendar year. So you effectively earn 3% back that first year, introducing you to another hallmark of travel hacking: hitting certain deals hard for the limited amount of time available.

Why card is good for beginners
  • no annual fee
  • easy to redeem rewards for cash back or travel credits 
  • plan travel as you normally would
Skills practiced
  • deciding between redeeming for travel or cash back
  • hitting a good deal hard (double bonus the first year)
Downsides for beginners
  • little to no sign up bonus (can get $50 from a referral)
  • may be tempted to just take the cash back instead of use for travel (only a downside if your goal is to travel more)

 

The best travel credit cards for beginners are highly dependent on your individual situation. My suggestions to help you find the best card for YOU.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP), like the Arrival+, fell out of favor to some degree. But it’s still a great card for beginners! Currently, you need to spend $4000 in the first three months to earn the 50,000 Ultimate Rewards point bonus. For the extra $1000 you need to spend (over the Arrival+), you gain quite a bit in value.

First, you can use your Ultimate Rewards to book travel through Chase’s travel portal. If you do that, you will get 1.25 cents of value per point. So as a cash equivalent currency, your Ultimate Rewards points get you more than your Arrival+ points. You can use 50,000 point bonus for $625 worth of travel ($125 more than Arrival+).

Secondly, the CSP also gives you the ability to transfer your points to travel partners. You can transfer miles to a lot of go-to programs for travel hackers, including but not limited to British Airways, United, and Hyatt. Thus you have more options for how you want to redeem your points.

This brings you to the next level of travel hacking – you can learn to start making decisions about how to get the most value out of your points. More options means more potential value but also more mental energy devoted to value proposition determinations. 

Do note that you only earn one point per dollar spent (2 points on travel and dining), so your regular earning rate isn’t as good. However, after the first year (and it’s waived $95 annual fee) you can easily downgrade the card to a Chase Freedom Unlimited (1.5 points per dollar), though you will lose a lot of the travel benefits.

Why card is good for beginners
  • easy redemption for $625, but the option to branch out into using loyalty programs
  • card can be downgraded to Chase Freedom Unlimited after first year
Skills practiced
  • organizing spending to earn a sign up bonus
  • redeeming cash equivalents for flights
  • transferring points to travel partners
  • canceling cards/getting retention bonuses OR downgrading to no annual fee card
Downsides for beginners
  • regular earning rate of only one point per dollar
  • learning how to use different loyalty programs can be confusing (too many options)
  • $4000 in 3 months may be a lot for a beginner

https://creditcards.chase.com/a1/sapphire/reserve

Chase Sapphire Reserve

I hesitated putting the Chase Sapphire Reserve on this list but ultimately decided that as a potential training tool it fits the bill. Up front you should know this card carries a hefty $450 annual fee, not waived the first year. In terms of benefits, it pretty much mirrors the Chase Sapphire Preferred. 50,000 point sign up bonus after spending $4000 in three months, the ability to transfer to travel partners, and the ability to use the points to book travel through Chase.

The Reserve does offer you 1.5 cents per point used towards travel through Chase, better than the Preferred’s 1.25 cents. The real reason I put this card on here is the $300 annual travel credit you get with the Reserve. Lots of premium cards come with this credit, the Reserve makes it the easiest to redeem. Basically any purchase you make that codes as travel will get reimbursed up to $300 per calendar year. (Note: Make sure you use up all $300 before your December statement closes).

You can get this travel credit twice in your first year of card membership, something travel hackers like to take advantage of. Then you get to practice determining whether a card is worth keeping, downgrading, or canceling. Personally I’ve decided to keep this one. Either way, you’re juggling all the skills you can hone with the Chase Sapphire Preferred with the added challenges of managing the travel credit. Thus I believe this to be the most complicated card I’m recommending for beginners, but it can really jumpstart your skills in this game.

One final note on Chase. They won’t approve anyone who has gotten more than 5 new credit cards in the last two years. That’s why conventional wisdom states go with Chase first. I mostly agree with that conventional wisdom but it’s highly dependent on how deep you plan on going in the game. Of course, nobody ever plans to go neck deep from the outset, so…

Why card is good for beginners
  • easy redemption for $750, but the option to branch out into using loyalty programs
  • card can be downgraded to Chase Freedom Unlimited after first year
  • practice earning travel credits
Skills practiced
  • organizing spending to earn a sign up bonus
  • redeeming cash equivalents for flights
  • transferring points to travel partners
  • earning travel credits twice in first card year
  • canceling cards/getting retention bonuses OR downgrading to no annual fee card
Downsides for beginners
  • regular earning rate of only one point per dollar (though 3X on travel/dining)
  • learning how to use different loyalty programs can be confusing (too many options)
  • $4000 in 3 months may be a lot for a beginner
  • can be confusing juggling travel credits
  • $450 annual fee very expensive if you don’t get the value back

Final Thoughts

I’ve changed quite a bit since I started this blog years ago. Now that I have a family, I recognize how great cash back cards can be in their simplicity. Earning 2% cash back on every purchase is great for travel, if you set that money aside to travel! Cash back cards notwithstanding, the cards I recommended above are some of the easiest entry level cards I can think of for beginners. Each card will help you practice a different skill that you can build on to save further on your travel budget. Feel free to e-mail me anytime with questions, but note I’m not financial professional, just giving my opinion from experience.

For you old timers out there, what card would you recommend to a pure beginner?

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The best travel credit cards for beginners are highly dependent on your individual situation. My suggestions to help you find the best card for YOU.

Joe
Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less
http://www.asthejoeflies@gmail.com

11 thoughts on “Best Travel Credit Cards for Beginners”

  1. I’d probably recommend Fidelity Visa or Citi Double Cash over Barclays Arrival Plus for beginners, since they are almost the same return and no annual fee.

    1. So I think I mentioned it in the post, but I left pure cash back cards out on purpose, just because you don’t need to learn how to “travel hack” to use them. But other than that, I completely agree! If I was just having a conversation I’d probably start with those. If you can’t handle your cash you might not be ready to handle the points

  2. Put the Chase cards first due to 5/24! (Heck, you didn’t even mention this in the column. I think you should have.) I wish I had known this 2 years ago when I jumped in feet first into this hobby. Just got my Chase rejection letter yesterday. Reason for turn down? Too many credit cards and apps over the last 2 years!

  3. I think this is a good list, but mine would be a bit different. I would probably recommend Discover It over Discover It Miles version. The reason: the card is a gift that keeps on giving. You’ll get double the rewards on 5% categories during the first year, and it’s a good keeper card after that. Discover It Miles becomes mediocre choice after the first 12 months.

    I totally agree on CSP and Arrival Plus. Both are solid options for beginners, especially CSP. However, one problem I keep running into is the fact that many people are terrified of committing to minimum spending of $3,000 or $4,000 in 3 moths.

    It’s bizarre because between Plastiq and various other bills majority can easily handle this barrier to entry. But, of course, I would never insist someone gets the offer that they *think* they can’t manage.
    For those folks my recommendations are: Chase IHG Mastercard or Chase Rapid Rewards Plus Visa. Lower minimum spend and excellent rewards. I especially like IHG card because I don’t have to worry about folks not canceling it. A great gateway drug! 🙂 Plus, we live in Florida, and getting good value out of annual renewal cert is super easy.
    I don’t currently recommend CSR because I’m fairly certain Chase will increase the bonus before the end of the year. I could be wrong, of course, but it just seems more prudent to wait this one out for now.

  4. While I agree that Discover IT is better than Discover Miles, I suggest carrying Discover Miles just for the free in flight wifi benefit. The card has no annual fee and the 1.5 % isn’t BAD it just isn’t great. While I’m hitting my Discover IT hard, especially on the 5% categories, Discover miles gets used a few times a year on a purchase that I can’t earn anything better on. Then I tuck it away and make sure I take on a flight or 2 for free wifi. As a training tool it’s super simple. Can you remember to put this in your wallet before you travel?

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